The Ripple Effects of the Shutdown Reach the GPS System (and Beyond)

In 2000, a Boeing Delta II rocket took a GPS satellite into orbit. In 2019, a government shutdown began degrading GPS coverage. (Duffin McGee / Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As you read the accounts below, remember the point that Jon Tester, recently reelected Democratic senator from Montana, made this past week on the Senate floor: If one man, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would let a “clean” budget resolution come up for a vote, it would certainly pass with both Democratic and Republican support.

Extra reminder: As of December 18, the Senate had unanimously approved a “clean” funding measure, with White House assurances that Donald Trump would sign it. Then Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, et al. began mocking Trump for “weakness,” and he turned against the deal and began announcing the “crisis” at the border. That is the backstory to the needless disruption and destruction now underway.

Here we go with today’s update. First, an underpublicized degradation of GPS coverage, with consequences for a wide range of businesses. A reader writes:

Your readers might be interested in a little-known but serious consequence of the government shutdown: the loss of the public CORS data supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (see https://www.ngs.noaa.gov/CORS/).

I work for a company that uses CORS data to apply real-time kinematics to vehicle GPS readings. The same CORS data is also used for surveying, GPS-guided farming, and a host of other applications.  All of them will now be forced to rely on private data that may not cover all areas and whose quality may vary. The NOAA data, by contrast, comes from a unique public-private partnership that has very wide coverage. It's also accessible to academic institutions and startups.

This strikes me as yet another way in which the shutdown hurts our core economic competitiveness. Your libertarian readers might think private companies can always make up a shortfall, but in this case they cannot: publicly-curated open-source data is unique.

I suspect that the impact will be most severe on startups and academic projects, which means we are eating our seed corn. Imagine if the founders of Google had to pay high rates for Internet access back in 1995, or if Steve Jobs had to pay a private company for garage space when building Apple.

I don't mean to equate this situation to the suffering of federal workers, but I think it's a distressing example of how the Republicans are willing to sacrifice America


Next, from a State Department staffer, who points out that employees often have to front significant sums for their travel expenses—“I've had the federal government owe me thousands of dollars for rentals and hotels”—but now they don’t know when they will be reimbursed. He adds that despite the shutdown,  Secretary Mike Pompeo is traveling frequently, which puts additional strain on unpaid employees:

The embassy staff—both American and local—at every place he stops is also, of course, killing themselves to facilitate the secretary's movements, meetings, comfort, and security.

Layer onto that the fact that, despite most of the domestic parts of the department being shuttered, Mrs. Pompeo has started traveling with the Secretary, which adds additional layers of complexity and requires additional people (that we don't have) to provide for her at every stop overseas.

Morale was already shot as [our branch of the State Department] had been hollowed out as a cost-saving measure, but this is just brutal.  Sooner or later, something's got to give.


From a reader who spent decades as a federal employee:

As to the both-sides argument, I observe that since the Clinton era shutdown my feelings have not changed—namely that if the Congress and/or president were private-sector employees they’d be fired for dereliction of duty.

Part of the job description for members of Congress is the appropriating of funds to run the government. Part of the president’s job description is to provide an annual budget request and work with the Congress to get funding, passed and signed. There is NO excuse for these basic governmental functions not being accomplished.…

I want to make an observation about the Federal workforce. I came to Federal service at age 41, after 20 years working in private sector positions. In my experience, Federal workers are dedicated, do they jobs well (often going above and beyond), and put in a full day’s work.  Are there bad apples—sure, but no more than the private sector.

I had my own experience with Federal workers going above and beyond. After I retired, due to lack of some documentation, I had to pay three visits to the local Social Security Office. I was a lady of a “certain age” trying to get my Medicare straightened out. On each visit, I had everyday Social Security staff work one on one with me, giving me specific instructions for resolution and easing a difficult situation.

These are the people compelled to go to work each day with no pay, or forced to stay home without pay knowing when they return they will face a tremendous backlog of work. Frankly, it is madness.  


Finally for today, from a reader who agrees with the foreign service officer who offered a variant on the “both sides to blame” argument:

Your foreign service officer was correct.

“Both sides” are responsible.  This is breakdown of politics.

1.  The Civiletti opinion from 1979 needs to be scrapped.  [JF note: This was a judgment by Benjamin Civiletti, then Attorney General in the Jimmy Carter administration, that if the Congress had not passed a budget by the end of fiscal year, the federal government would need to shut down. Before that, operations had just continued “on credit,” with the difference made up later on.]

It is a political document, not constitutional law. It worked until 1995.  Clinton was able to make it work to his advantage. It has not worked since then. It has turned into a joke and any responsible president who cared about his country should throw it out. That includes Obama.

2.  The larger point is the Budget Act of 1974 has been a complete failure and what we need is a better way to do budgets. I understand politicians may not want to say that but that is what we have public intellectuals for. I don’t see anybody saying that.

3.   Trump has given us a golden opportunity to see who are the asses in American politics; there are a few who are willing to put country over facebook likes. Very few, though.